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This week Mark Naison took an axe to the Peer Assistance and Review program, citing research done by Brian Crowell, a math teacher in Berkeley, California. Crowell states that his research has shown that teachers who are outspoken, and those who are over 55, are of color, and those who are expensive, are the ones most likely to be referred to PAR.

I have a somewhat different perspective on the program, having served for one year on Oakland’s PAR Joint Committee, and for two years as a Consulting Teacher, responsible for observing and coaching teachers who had been referred to the program by their administrators. This experience does not mean every PAR program is run perfectly, and that there is no possibility that the program might be misused. But I think the situation is more complex than what we are hearing.

First of all, it is important to understand how PAR programs operate. The state of California began providing categorical funds for school districts about 15 years ago which allowed them to set up PAR programs. That funding has now been shifted into the general fund, so any districts that continue to maintain PAR programs do so with general funds. The PAR program is administered by a Joint Committee, with representatives appointed by the teachers union, and with administrators. In Oakland, there were four teachers and three administrators on the JC.

The purpose of a PAR program is to allow for the termination, remediation or exoneration of teachers who receive poor evaluations. The administration is contending that while the referred teacher may not actually violate their contract or the state education code, they are simply ineffective as teachers. This process takes at least two years to complete – one year of the initial poor evaluation and referral to PAR, and a subsequent year – or two – of observation and intervention by the PAR Consulting Teacher. Here is how it works (as practiced in Oakland):

Tenured teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations may be referred by their administrator to the PAR program. That means their evaluations are sent over to the PAR program, where they are reviewed. If the evaluations were done properly, meaning all required components and observations were completed, and deadlines met, then the referred teacher is assigned to the caseload of a Consulting Teacher. The Consulting Teacher is then given the task of both observing and assisting the referred teacher, with two goals. The goal of the observations is to create a clear record of what is happening in that teacher’s classroom, in relation to the evaluation criteria – which are based on the California Standards of the teaching profession. The Consulting Teacher observes instruction in the referred teacher’s classroom once every week. After a few months, one has a very good idea what sort of teaching is going on. The second goal is to offer support and assistance, so that the teacher can avoid another poor evaluation. This means the CT has regular meetings with a referred teacher, and offers help gathering resources, lesson planning, or whatever seems to be needed.

In April, the CT prepares a report for the Joint Committee, detailing what was observed and the work that had been done with each referred teacher. The JC then decides what recommendation to make. There are three possible outcomes. A referred teacher could be recommended to exit the program successfully, meaning they get a clear record as far as PAR is concerned. They could be recommended to continue for a second year of coaching. Or they could be exited from the program unsuccessfully, if there is not much evidence of improvement. In cases where they are exited unsuccessfully, they are eligible for termination if the administration wishes to pursue that. It should be noted that the PAR process does not mean that a teacher has given up their union representation in defending them against termination. Teachers still have full union representation.

There are several possibilities when someone is referred to PAR. It is possible that the teacher was performing reasonably well, and for some reason ran afoul of the principal. In the three years I was involved with PAR we saw several instances where this appeared to be the case. In those cases, the CT witnessed good teaching taking place, and reported this to the Joint Committee, who would exit the person successfully.

It is possible someone was struggling, but with the intervention of the PAR coach, they would improve. Again, this person would be exited successfully, and not be subject to termination on the basis of their original poor evaluation.

It is also possible that the referred teacher does not, for whatever reason, improve much.

Here is what that might look like. I worked with a teacher who, on a regular basis, would send about half the class to stand in the hall or on the schoolyard when they were off task. He would leave them there, unsupervised, for ten or twenty minutes at a time, sometimes even forgetting they were out there. His idea of instruction was to project a scrolling image of the textbook on the wall, as an iPod recording read the text. The students had copies of the text and were supposed to fill in every fifth word. I purchased materials so he could do a simulated archaeological dig with his students. He never touched them. When I asked him why, he said his students were “too low” for such interactive activities.

This teacher had two years to respond to coaching. His teaching was observed not two or three times a year, but on a weekly basis. He got access to resources, help planning, management strategies – but he did not make any major changes. After his second year of coaching he was exited from PAR, and took an early retirement.

If PAR programs are run well, with active leadership from the teachers union, and responsible consulting teachers, they provide a check and balance to the evaluation process. If a principal is attempting to persecute someone for being a thorn in the side of administration, then the consulting teacher is likely to observe nothing wrong with that teacher’s instruction. The results of that observation will vindicate the teacher. And as I said, there were several times during my three years with Oakland’s PAR program, where this occurred. If, on the other hand, a teacher is not serving students well, then the PAR program offers that teacher an opportunity to get some support and guidance.

Readers of this blog know that I am not a big fan of the pursuit of “a seat at the table” for teachers, when that seat is merely symbolic, and does not have any real influence. The seat at the PAR table does have some meaning. PAR programs can be used to defend teachers from capricious administrative action.

And we have to look at what we are saying if we completely reject PAR as a nefarious collaboration with administration. We end up abdicating any role in the process by which teachers are evaluated and terminated – other than absolute opposition in every case.

I agree with those who say the phenomenon of “bad teachers” has been blown way out of proportion by corporate reformers. “Bad teachers” are not the source of our major challenges in education, and I firmly oppose any witch hunts for them. However, the fact that “bad teachers” are being used as a bogeyman to destroy due process from the right does not mean we ought to join in destroying due process from the left. The PAR program can be an important and valuable part of due process.

There may indeed be evidence of some discriminatory patterns that should be investigated. In Oakland, schools get their budgets according to the number of students they enroll, so administrators have an incentive to rid their schools of more highly paid teachers, who might cost them significantly more than a beginning teacher.

If teacher unions are not acting as they should to ensure that PAR programs operate with integrity, then members should get active around this concern. But there are teachers who ought not to be teaching. It is indeed primarily the job of the administration to evaluate and follow due process to deal with this. If we want administrators to have the sole prerogative in this process, then we should abandon PAR. But I think that would be a mistake.

We need to use a bit of forethought here. What would be the result of the elimination of PAR programs? Would administrators then be unable to fire teachers when they have poor evaluations? I doubt it! It is far more likely that the elimination of PAR programs would REMOVE the opportunity for those teachers to have peers review their evaluation, and make the termination process that much less fair. Our challenge is to take responsibility for the integrity of the program, not just trash it because problems exist.

Author

Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.

Comments

  1. Patricia    

    “If PAR programs are run well, with active leadership from the teachers union, and responsible consulting teachers, they provide a check and balance to the evaluation process.” That is an accurate statement in my experience, Anthony. Excellent post – thank you for sharing your experiences and insights.

  2. Brian    

    Anthony Cody ignores the data in Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego combined. Overwhelmingly PAR discriminates against older women, minority and specifically people who are tops on the salary scale. Cody is not being honest.

    1. CitizensArrest    

      Cody is being entirely honest, it is the improper use of PAR to suit the financial and other non educational goals of the administration rather than improving instruction that is the problem. This is made quite clear in the article.

  3. Sarah    

    I know of no credible “research” where a fired teacher then does a study on himself.
    Good grief.

  4. Hope    

    Read closely. Cody affirms that there may be bias in referrals to PAR. This is an area to investigate. PAR does not discriminate, because it is not an evaluation nor a referral mechanism.

  5. Patricia    

    The unsatisfactory evaluation and how it was done are the real issues. If a teacher gets an unsatisfactory evaluation one year, the evaluation triggers a referral to PAR for the following year. The teacher will also have another administrator evaluation that next year.

    I think a referred teacher and students are at risk year two in NOT having a consulting teacher who collects data independently of the administrator. Without a consulting teacher, the referred teacher goes into year two under the scrutiny of only the administrator-evaluator. We need to look at evaluation processes.

  6. Sarah    

    “Cody is not being honest.”

    What nonsense.

  7. Masha Albrecht    

    We have analyzed the PAR data for Oakland and there is a tremendous statistical bias against older teachers. This is not an opinion, this is fact. How you interpret the data is open to dispute. My own opinion as a union rep who has watched strong senior teachers thrown into PAR is that this is a way of cheapening the labor of teachers, removing people before they reach retirement, and silencing some of the stronger voices in our schools. I am sorry that Anthony Cody has chose to apologize for this flawed program.

    1. CitizensArrest    

      Read the actual article. THe flaw is not in PAR, it is in how PAR is being misused. Why are you having such trouble with it where you are when many other places are experiencing such great results with it?

  8. Ima Teacher    

    Are you conflating the PAR program with the evaluation system?

  9. Karen Wolfe    

    Anthony Cody was kind to respond respectfully to a blog post that went no further than saying, “This is what I think happened. I have the data. Trust me.” As educators and public education advocates, if we are to build credibility in our demand for evidence based policies rather than arbitrary reforms that score political points, we better make sure our own evidence is valid, reliable and replicable. One achieves that by providing sufficient information about the research so that it can be reviewed and critiqued. I would like to see the research that led to the criticisms of PAR.

  10. crunchydeb    

    Montgomery County, MD, where I live and used to teach, has its own PAR program which has been highly-regarded. Hundreds of weaker teachers have resigned – this is a HUGE countywide school system – in its several years in existence, while countless others have had chances to improve weaker teaching or two be exited from the program if put thru PAR because of weak, capricious, or in some cases vengeful administrators bent on making teachers’ lives miserable. It hadn’t yet come into being while I taught there, but given some of the measures I was on the receiving end of from some administrators ranging from “simply” weak to downright antagonistic, I would have welcomed the chance to show what I was actually doing in schools & classrooms thru such a program.

    If a PAR program being implemented badly in the case of Oakland, that’s not necessarily the fault of PAR as a whole, but more likely a problem with Oakland schools themselves. That saying about the baby and the bathwater comes to mind.

  11. Patricia    

    I am familiar with the PAR program in Oakland Unified. It’s a good program and the consulting teacher/coaches are excellent and very skilled. I have no knowledge of Berkeley Unified’s teacher evaluation system or of its PAR program. It sounds as if some district teacher evaluation systems need further examination.

  12. Sergio Flores    

    PAR, a concept that could support and improve teachers’ performance, does not escape from the corrupting effects of the reforms. Since the corporate reformers took over the public education establishment with their arbitrary policies, impossible goals, and false premises, the shift required from teachers absolute obedience, compliance, and ultimately conformity. Consequently, corporate reformers saw experienced and independent thinking teachers as a problem. For years I have observed how the establishment has two effective ways of getting rid of them: wearing them down (emotionally and physically) and buying them out (becoming mentors –commissars-or retiring as soon as possible). Teacher evaluation as a key part of the unwarranted accountability component of the reforms is, in my opinion, a weapon or threat, rather than a legitimate action to determine how a teacher performs. If we aspire to improve public education and treat teachers as professionals, we have to acknowledge that the confusing, arbitrary, and absurd movement that we call education reform needs to be questioned or better delegitimatized. In my view, the abuses mentioned of PAR are simply just one more symptom of the polluted environment created by the corporate reformers.

  13. Jenny K    

    PAR could make sense. But most and probably all PAR coaches are people trying to become administrators. So PAR coaches play the political game and and state that high target teachers are terrible, so that they themselves can get in cozy with the administration team. I’ve been in two districts (in different states), and I’ve never seen PAR used judiciously. Just for the record, I am not someone who has ever been PARed. t really is a big scam to get rid of teachers who don’t get a long with administrators (for various reasons). It will be interesting to see how this next elections impacts this bully PAR thing.

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